Wood chip burner saves university $1.4 million annually amid attempts to make utilities more green

Wood chips might not seem to be an easy answer for “going green,” but they are saving the university $1.4 million annually.

A steam absorption chiller and a new institute, wood chips are at the forefront of efforts to make utilities more green at CMU.

The university began burning wood chips early in the last decade to produce steam because of rising cost of natural gas. The wood energy system was halted for more than a decade before being restarted in 2001 after its installation in 1985.

Seventy percent of annual campus steam needs are produced using wood, according to CMU’s website.

“By using wood, we’re taking a waste product and producing steam and electricity,” said Tom Rohrer, assistant professor of environmental studies and director of the Great Lakes Institute for Sustainable Systems.

Wood waste is imported from the surrounding area and put into chippers, while the contaminants are removed through a filtering system. The wood is then burned to produce steam, Rohrer said.

GLISS was developed in 2009 by Rick Kurtz, interim associate dean of the College of Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences. It grew from the Campus Sustainability Advisory Committee established in 2008 by former University President Michael Rao.

GLISS plans to issue its first report since it started in November.

That same year, the university invested $50,000 in refurbishing a steam absorption chiller for water because of the high cost of using an electric chiller. The steam chiller paid itself off within two months, Rohrer said. The institute is also responsible for aerated flow in bathroom water faucets to cut back on water use.

“We save 25 percent on the water bill, which is not an insignificant amount,” Rohrer said.

The institute spent six to nine months looking at other schools’ programs. CMU is one of only a handful of campuses in the United States with a large-scale sustainability effort, Kurtz said.

Kurtz wants to achieve social sustainability through academic programs.

“Students will be more marketable with programs that offer a sustainable component to them,” Kurtz said. “The opportunities are immense.”

There are ample research opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and research opportunities with corporate partners who are interested in improving their bottom line, Kurtz said. The federal government is very interested in sustainability, so there are significant options for grants.

“We are looking for a return on the investment all the time,” Rohrer said.

One of the institute’s goals is to facilitate cooperative ventures with businesses and other universities looking to change the way they impact the environment, Rohrer said.

This includes serving as a clearinghouse for information for those groups.

“We have the technology, knowledge and capabilities, we just need to apply them,” Kurtz said.


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